Good Digital Parenting
Blog | May 22, 2013

Posting About Friends Online: The Conversation We Haven’t Had With Kids

Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota

According to the most recent study released by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life, a majority of teens go to great lengths to protect their privacy, curate their personal information, and present a personal image through the social networks that they use.

This is probably because these teens have been online since they were quite young and were taught from an early age that they should be responsible about how they represent themselves online – from never giving out personal information to strangers or posting embarrassing photos and videos that might come back to haunt them later in life.

But this isn’t easy to keep a handle on it, considering how many social tools are out there that can capture and publish their lives for the world. From social networking sites like Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter to photo and video sharing tools like Instagram, Snapchat and Vine, there are more opportunities than ever to put our lives online.

Still, as much as we talk to kids about how to represent themselves online, we rarely talk about how to represent other people online. What about their friends’ images and personal information? Considering the importance of peers in their lives, and the prevalence of peers in their own status updates and pictures, it actually seems like an important but overlooked conversation.

Representing friends online

In the age of social media, where snapping a photo or video and sharing it with everyone in school is both easy and common, we must consider how producing and posting affects others. A thoughtful family discussion about asking permission might be all that it takes to trigger a more responsible approach when it comes to personal disclosure. We would never think of borrowing something from a friend without asking first. We would never share personal, confidential information about a friend who asked us to keep a matter private. Too often, the Internet often seems to throw these common social mores out the window.

This probably has something to do with the fact that social capital among the young can be so easily conferred by simply posting an embarrassingly funny photo of a peer on Facebook or sending it to someone on Snapchat. A kid might say, “If I ask permission to post something, no one will ever say yes” (which is probably often true). Urge him or her to consider what they know about their friend – for example, is she especially worried about how she looks in braces? Tell them to put themself in the other person’s shoes: Would they want this posted about them?

Talk to them about this quick list of questions to use as a guide when the opportunity arises to post something about a peer:

  1. Am I about to post a photo, video, status or whatever else that will embarrass or hurt someone else? 
  2. Am I about to post a visual image of someone else that reveals a private fact about that person?  
  3. Who could possibly see this post who my friend would not want to see it? (The answer to this could simply be your friend’s faint-hearted grandmother, but even her shock is worth considering.) 
  4. If I were to ask permission to post this, would the other person involved say no? 
  5. How long might this photo or posting be available online? (And in the case of Snapchat, where the photo is supposed to self-destruct minutes after it’s sent, can you think of any ways that the photo might be saved and distributed? Maybe through a screen grab? Yep. Thought so.)

Teaching young people to be considerate of others’ images online certainly teaches them digital citizenship, but it also cultivates a stronger sense of empathy as it relates to social media. I can’t help but think that a sense of empathy online can translate into increased empathy for others in general – and that would really make the world a better place both online and off.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.